Films with time-traveling bears tend to defy easy description. So do movies where a teenager has alien fly mutant blood and was forced to wear a TV set on his hand as a child. It’s also tough to describe a flick where a Ghostface-like slash wanders into the picture and isn’t the focal point. Director Joseph Kahn has swirled all these elements and more into the delightful, abrasive lunacy of his new film, Detention. The movie is a rapid-fire assault on the senses, and while it plucks at your neural pathways like an inbred hillbilly armed with a banjo and amphetamines, Kahn’s picture has sharp mind, a charming wit, and a scathing critique on nostalgia and the narcissism of teenagers both past and present.
The film opens with a screaming, unapologetic blitzkrieg where a popular teenage girl spews out her own rules for life before that life is blessedly ended by a serial killer. In her bedroom. In broad daylight. Before we even have time to process the spin, Kahn has pushed us to the movie’s main character, Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell). Riley is the least popular person in school, and her status is only slightly higher than the girl who blew the stuffed bear in the high school’s hallway twenty years ago. On her way to school, she’s mugged by a Swede (again, in broad daylight in a suburban neighborhood), and her day only goes downhill from there. We’re then quickly introduced to Riley’s crush, Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson), who needs the pass a class or his life will be ruined by the dickish Principal Verge (Dane Cook). Clapton also has to worry about a Three O’Clock High-style showdown with jock Billy Nolan (Parker Bagley), and being wooed by the aggressive Ione (Spencer Locke) even though he has eyes for Riley, and Riley has eyes for him but she’s being lusted after by Riley’s icky friend Sander Sanderson (Aaron David Johnson).
In a normal movie, this kind of set-up would be tiresome and tedious. Kahn turns it all on its head because he wants to show the vapidity of the conflict and then toss in genre elements like slashers, mutants, and time-traveling bears to further highlight the ridiculousness of how deeply involved these teens are involved with their own drama as if to say, “Your life isn’t crazy. This is crazy.” Detention crawls into the pulse of self-involved teenagers and then gives them a heart attack. The takeaway from the plot set-up shouldn’t be the character relationships. The takeaway should be the names.
Detention is a whole mess of mockery that tap-dances between gleeful derision and unapologetic bitchiness. With the exception of Billy, no one has a regular, old-fashioned name. That may sound crotchety, but stop and think: Do you know anyone named “Clapton”, “Ione”, or “Sander”? It’s a trend of Kahn and co-writer Mark Palermo‘s script where teenagers are made otherworldly, in terms of their names, their speech (these are the teens who can verbalize every conflict and emotion in a way no real teen could), and even in terms of their physiology.
Taken piecemeal, all of these elements would scream of trying too hard and being outlandish for the sake of being outlandish. At the film’s outset, it seems like that’s where the film is going. Kahn sets off an explosion of dialogue, visual tricks, comedy, pacing, characters relationships, and it’s not until the ringing in our ears dies down that we begin to see where it’s all going. Detention has a plot, but it’s more about seizing on to a mental state and riding a wave of madness and hilarity to a rewarding thematic conclusion.
Based on the first ten minutes, you wouldn’t believe that a movie as unwieldy as Detention could come to a thoughtful, rewarding finish, but Kahn absolutely nails the landing. He’s unafraid to double back and smash his plotlines together in order to explore how teenage trends, culture, and hyper self-awareness create an arrested development in both individuals and society. And he does all this by employing a stuffed time-traveling bear from Planet Starclaw as a crucial plot device.
Detention lets you know in the first five minutes if this is a ride you want to take, and then it takes ten more minutes to understand that there’s a method stuffed inside the madness. There are times when it’s too much to bear (but never Time Bear; Time Bear is awesome) and the joke overpowers the satire, but for the most part, Detention is a whirling dervish that always manages to stay on track. By joyously ripping on imitation, Joseph Kahn has created a true original.